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“Figuratively” vs. “Literally”

Although similar and often incorrectly swapped for each other, literally and figuratively have different meanings that can’t really be interchanged. So even if you feel like you literally can’t help confusing the two, this exaggeration may help explain why figuratively is actually the right word in many cases.

What does figuratively mean?

Figuratively is an adverb of the adjective figurative that means “of the nature of or involving a figure of speech.”  It’s typically metaphorical and not literal, which is a key difference in common usage between figuratively and literally. Except for one little annoying part of figurative: it can also mean “represented by a figure, drawing, sculpture, or emblem,” so figuratively has a literal meaning as well. Moving on from that …

Originating in 1350–1400, this Middle English word derives from the Late Latin figūrātīvus and replaced Middle English figuratif. 

It’s important to remember that a figurative description is different than a literal meaning that describes exactly what is happening in black-and-white terms. So while you may be so happy that you want to figuratively shout from the rooftop, you would only use literally if you were actually standing on the roof and screaming with joy.

What does literally mean?

Although figuratively has room for interpretation or exaggeration, literally is exact and concrete in its meaning.

The adverb is defined as “in the literal or strict sense” and “actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy.” Whatever word or phrase the word literally modifies is being described in a literal manner; word for word. For example: Although you may not literally know everything there is to know about sports, you can probably tell us literally everything that happened during the last play.

If you’re describing what actually happened, without exaggeration or inaccuracy, then literally is the right choice. For example, I spent literally every cent I had on that gift works if you actually did empty out every penny you had to your name.

Literally was first recorded around 1525 but its usage began to change in the 19th century. Starting from this time, literally began to be used as an intensifier for effect, which contradicts its meaning of “without exaggeration.” This shift has normalized its misuse, and that’s become a major pet peeve for many who are aware of the difference.

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How to use each word

Since words and phrases typically have both literal and figurative meanings, it’s easy to know when to use each of these terms, once you understand the difference between the two. You can literally open a package as soon as it arrives but you can only figuratively open your heart to love.

You can also only figuratively tell the whole world how you feel but, instead, you can literally tell every person whom you come in contact with about your feelings.

Feel like you’re so frustrated that you’re literally going to explode? Wrong! You may feel like you’re figuratively going to erupt, but it’s safe to say you won’t literally combust due to an emotion anytime soon.

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